Functional trade-offs and the phylogenetic dispersion of seed traits in a biodiversity hotspot of the Mountains of Southwest China

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Ecology and Evolution



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functional traits, Mountains of Southwest China, seed mass, seed number, time to germination


© 2018 The Authors. Ecology and Evolution published by John Wiley & Sons Ltd. The diversity of traits associated with plant regeneration is often shaped by functional trade-offs where plants typically do not excel at every function because resources allocated to one function cannot be allocated to another. By analyzing correlations among seed traits, empirical studies have shown that there is a trade-off between seedling development and the occupation of new habitats, although only a small range of taxa have been tested; whether such trade-off exists in a biodiverse and complex landscape remains unclear. Here, we amassed seed trait data of 1,119 species from a biodiversity hotspot of the Mountains of Southwest China and analyzed the relationship between seed mass and the number of seeds and between seed mass and time to germination. Our results showed that seed mass was negatively correlated with seed number but positively correlated with time to germination. The same trend was found regardless of variation in life-form and phylogenetic conservatism. Furthermore, the relation between seed mass and other seed traits was randomly dispersed across the phylogeny at both the order and family levels. Collectively, results suggest that there is a functional trade-off between seedling development and new habitat occupation for seed plants in this region. Larger seeds tend to produce fewer seedlings but with greater fitness compared to those produced by smaller seeds, whereas smaller seeds tend to have a larger number of seeds that germinate faster compared to large-seeded species. Apart from genetic constraints, species that produce large seeds will succeed in sites where resource availability is low, whereas species with high colonization ability (those that produce a high number of seeds per fruit) will succeed in new niches. This study provides a mechanistic explanation for the relatively high levels of plant diversity currently found in a heterogeneous region of the Mountains of Southwest China.

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